The Man Who Saw Everything – Deborah Levy

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Chosen by Rachel

A man who is hit by a vehicle on Abbey Road represents the difficulty of seeing oneself and others clearly.

✚ “In the opening pages of The Man Who Saw Everything, Saul Adler, a young historian, steps onto the famous Abbey Road pedestrian crossing and is hit by a vehicle. This is the key event of the story, against which everything else should be measured.

“The importance of this accident is not apparent at first. The first 14 chapters are easy to read and narrated in a naturalistic, chronological style. The story then moves to a more impressionistic vernacular that is less linear as both we, the reader, and the people in Saul’s life begin to tie together loose ends.

“Set in 1988 and 2016, in England and in the German Democratic Republic, the novel contains a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, as Saul attempts to make sense of his life and its events via a lens of fractured dreams and memories. I found the intrigue built slowly but intensely as the true extent of Saul’s narcissistic tendencies are realised.

The Man Who Saw Everything is not a difficult read, though there is some after thought required to piece together all the puzzle pieces and establish exactly what happened. I did follow the plot and thought the delivery of it was brilliant, but have to admit there were a few surprises for me still when I got online to check for the stylistic complexities I may have missed.

“This is the kind of book I love, a seemingly simple story with much depth and guesswork required. A book that keeps on giving the more you think about it! Imho it should have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, as it was for the Goldsmith Prize.” – Rachel

I had lost my job. I was no longer officially a minor historian. Perhaps I was history itself, flailing around in a number of directions, sometimes all of them at the same time.

✚ “First impressions count, and I was immediately attracted to The Man Who Saw Everything by the cover and the title. And from the opening pages I did think it held great promise with an interesting relationship between the main character Saul and his girlfriend Jennifer. Plus the strange incident on Abbey Road where Saul is hit by a vehicle adds to the intrigue.

“However from here I found the book difficult to read. As I got further into the story I felt it lacked a discernible plot and often seemed rambling and dull. Also the dialogue between characters did not resonate with me. From having so much potential to ending with a sense of disappointment I was left feeling like I didn’t get this one at all.” – Becks

✚ “The Man Who Saw Everything is written to a high standard. It is, in fact, an incredibly cleverly written piece of art. It is beautiful to read and the characters drew me in from the outset. Unfortunately, however, I found much of the plot intricacies went over my head. It is definitely a book I would consider re-reading and studying more indepthly. Would I recommend this to a friend? Yes I would. Though to a friend who appreciates the art of writing, not as a relaxing summer read!” – Sonya

✚ “Since finishing The Man Who Saw Everything I have thought about the book a fair bit, in that I feel like I need to investigate it further and re-read. Trying to navigate my way through the narrative was tricky – which parts was Saul dreaming, what were hallucinations, what was imagination and what was real? To be honest I’m not sure what to make of this book!” – Jodie

✚ “Like many books I’ve read The Man Who Saw Everything went somewhat over my head. It wasn’t until we had some researched answers on the book’s construction that I understood more about the story and appreciated it’s complexity.

“The book was weird and wonderful and I did enjoy it, but I probably would have enjoyed it more if I’d read it rather than listened to it on Audible. I won’t be listening to another book as it has the ability to ruin what may have otherwise been a pleasurable reading experience. In this case the narrator’s voice was one I didn’t like and the medium was not for me!

“I wouldn’t recommend The Man Who Saw Everything to a friend without an explanation of the central plot as I think that would increase reader pleasure.” – Jo

—–
Published 2019
Bloomsberry Publishing
199 pages

 

2020 – Narrative direction

A novel must contain many things to hold the reader’s attention: compelling plot, relatable characters and distinct settings. But another, sometimes underrated, feature is narrative direction. It can be overstated for purpose, or discreet so as not to be obtrusive, but narration is usually a complex feature worth investigation.

Each of our bookclub meets has a chair, who, like a narrator, engages the readers and steers them through investigation of their chosen book – its construction, its relevance, its critical review – for a fuller understanding of the work.

After a year of particularly attention-grabbing books, when we each had much to say and much to question, we are more appreciative of this direction; we have discovered it is more important than ever to focus our discussions. It is easy to react and to meander with our interpretations, but to retain focus and direction is to fully examine a topic or aspect that may influence a later conversation.

The books we have chosen to dissect with clear and concise attention this year are:

The Man Who Saw Everything – Deborah Levy
Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami
Educated – Tara Westover
Normal People – Sally Rooney
American Dirt – Jeanine Cummins
Rules of Civility – Amor Towles
The Memory Police – Yoko Ego
Driving To Treblinka – Diana Witchell
Born A Crime – Trevor Noah
Lost Children Archive – Valeria Luiselli

 

2019 – End Of Year Thoughts

Overcoming adversity is an effective literary theme, creating controversy and hope and edge-of-your-seat dynamics. It is also an apt reflection of the real world.

Looking back over our reading list in 2019, it’s easy to see how overcoming adversity dominated the featured titles.

From North Korean military control, to South African apartheid, from accidental shootings and drug fuelled poverty, to orphaned children and World War II life, this reading schedule was certainly adrenalin packed!

Yet misery or distress was not the overwhelming forethought when considering the booklist at our end-of-year dinner at Harbour Light Bistro. Rather it was the sense of appreciation for a life lived or a journey still to come that inspired the freerangers to name this list a tremendous one.

It was fair to say there were a number of shocking moments to discuss, but the two that remained with us (spoiler alert) were two rapes, one in A Clockwork Orange, and the other in Disgrace. Plus we were all shocked to read insights into North Korean life in The Orphan Master’s Son. Also troubling to learn was that two endings exist to A Clockwork Orange. Discovering that some of us obtained copies with one ending and some the other caused all sorts of chaos with our feelings about the book!

At the other extreme there were many couplings that filled us with joy, mostly Leisel and Rudy in The Book Thief and Simon and Robert in The Immortalists. And in a year of go-getter characters, we agreed that Arthur Less in Less was boring and lifeless and while we appreciate this was the intention, he remained uninspiring to us.

But all in all we loved the books so much it was the first year we agreed upon a three-tier favourites list, so difficult was it to choose only a runner up and a bestie!

Most memorable setting:
Jo: Parchment Prison in Sing Unburied Sing
Rachel: North Korea in The Orphan Master’s Son
BecksCat lady’s bedroom in A Clockwork Orange
Sonya: The writer’s retreat in Less
Jodie: The marsh in When The Crawdads Sing

Best character:
Jo: David Lurie in Disgrace
RachelAlex in A Clockwork Orange
Becks: Alex in A Clockwork Orange
Sonya: Pak Jun Do in The Orphan Master’s Son
Jodie: Pak Jun Do in The Orphan Master’s Son

2nd runner up best book:
Jo: Disgrace
Rachel: The Orphan Master’s Son
Becks: The Immortalists
Sonya: Sing Unburied Sing
Jodie: The Orphan Master’s Son

1st runner up best book:
Jo: The Orphan Master’s Son
Rachel: Disgrace
Becks: When The Crawdads Sing
Sonya: The Book Thief
Jodie: LaRose

Book of the year:
Jo: The Book Thief
Rachel: A Clockwork Orange
Becks: A Clockwork Orange
Sonya: The Orphan Master’s Son
Jodie: Sing Unburied Sing

Where The Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens

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Chosen by Jodie

A marshland recluse becomes tied up in a 1960s murder mystery, set in North Carolina 

⚑ “In the isolated marshlands of North Carolina, a young orphan named Kya lives alone, with only the local flora and fauna from which to learn about life. Her run down cottage breathes its history, haunting Kya of the violence and struggles that caused her family to abandon her. This is a childhood of the 1950s, when regulations were loose so there is little attempt by authorities to guide or supervise her.

“As Kya matures, she draws the attentions of two men, Chase Andrews and Tate Walker. One of these men turns up dead and so begins a criminal investigation and court case that Kya becomes caught up in.

When The Crawdads Sing has a captivating plot which captures  the reader and holds their attention. The murder plot line has all the hallmarks of a good crime novel with dramatic prosecutors, elaborate accusations and a few surprises to keep you guessing.

“However, it is the setting and character’s relationship to the land that is the real drawcard to this novel. As a human who knows only nature, all Kya’s references come from her surroundings: her survival instincts, her food gathering methods and her relationship building with the few humans in her life, both friend and foe. Even her dating rituals come from her observations of the sex life of fireflies. 

“That the author, Delia Owens, has strong connections to the environment is apparent. In fact she worked for many years as a wildlife scientist in Africa. Her ability to develop the setting as if it was a character itself gives the book life, and provides a contemporary link to today’s environmental and ecological politics.

Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn’t know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land who caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.

“The timing of the book also provides a stage for Owens to reference racial and social division of the time, which she does in a historical presentation without the moralistic outrage that so often accompanies such topics. 

“In a book where the protagonist spends large portions of time alone, said protagonist needs to be exceptionally well developed. And yes there was a lot put into the creation of Kya. To the townsfolk, the “Marsh Girl,” is a recalcitrant freak, who isolates herself in her remote shack; yet the author, portrays her to the reader as quite the opposite. One whom, despite her raw and brutal lifestyle, turns into not only an academic and beauty, but a strong, capable and worldly woman, almost superherioic in nature. This is a little disappointing, to be honest. Owens may have provided Kya a tutor but a tutor and the fireflies cannot be the credited for all her social aptitude and intellect. That such an ode to perfection could arise from such ramshackle wilderness and captivate not one but two local men is also far fetched. 

“Yet despite this, all the freerangers forgave the author, for the plot and the landscape were both so appealing, as was the styling, which successfully circled many genres: crime, coming-of-age, romance, YA survival and nature writing.

“Just like Reece Witherspoon, we did all agree we’d recommend this book. She may have a few more followers than us though!”

—–
Published 2018
G.P Putnams
384 pages

Dogside Story – Patricia Grace

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Chosen by Jo

Conflict in a North Island whanau means one man must reveal a great secret.

⚑ “Considered one of NZ writer Patricia Grace’s masterpieces, Dogside Story presents a portrait of Maori: their powerful connections to the land, ocean and to whanau, and the importance of storytelling.

“Set prior to the Millennium, the story takes place in a rural community born of a family feud. The resulting split sees the establishment of two villages, one either side of the river, referred to as Dogside and Godside. Years pass and younger people move away or adopt modern ways threatening the erosion of tradition. Yet the bonds somehow remain, as do the secrets and feuds, especially for one of the main characters Te Rua who is burdened with revealing all in order to claim his daughter. 

“There is a universality and humanity in Grace’s characters, as well as desperate tragedy that flows and ebbs like the rhythm of the ocean which the characters are intrinsically linked to. All the freerangers agreed the narratives of the many characters were powerful and highly developed and as such formed the foundation to the novel, a literary feat that deserved its Man Booker nod in 2001.”

“However for some of us the many characters were a little burdensome. Their individual personalities and genealogies were difficult to sort, resulting in a clunky reading experience in the opening chapters. Each character’s energy and nature did become more obvious as the pages ticked over and storylines developed, and it was here that the real joy of reading Dogside Story began.

“Jo however was hooked from the outset. ‘Each character’s voice was distinct and easy to follow as the wonderful dialogue unfolded. I was right there beside them the whole way and I could hear Patricia Grace’s conversations all day in my head, they were so genuine.’

“Aside from the family dramas, there is also the wider story of the East Coast and the expected influx of tourists eager to be among the first in the world to see the new Millennium sunrise. It was a demonstration of how traditional Maori communities are developing – for better or worse – in reaction to modern times, technologies and incomers arriving en masse.

“As usual Grace encourages the reader to find their own comfort level of tradition and modernity all the while providing the perfect mix of entertainment, history lesson and thought topic.”

—–

Published 2001
Penguin
301 pages

2019 Bookerthon

Wow, what a year! The books on the Booker shortlist in 2019 are gigantic, in every expression of the word. There are books of many pages, books written by literary giants, books that deal with the huge topics of today. There’s the effects on every day people of racism, sexism, Trumpism, exclusion and climate concern. The underclass, the undesirables, those who are devalued by the majority all have a voice in this shortlist. Yet it is not as miserable as it sounds. There is much hope, fulfilment, upliftment and laughter amongst the stark realities.

“Is it a coincidence that one of these books is named An Orchestra of Minorities? For really, this is an apt description of this shortlist, a collection of minority groups given a voice in societies that seem to devalue difference and freedoms. These books represent views, whether realist or satirical, on our contemporary fake-news, what-is-truth culture, where the concept of reality itself is becoming eroded.

An Orchestra of Minorities is about a Nigerian chicken farmer attempting to win over his girlfriend’s wealthy parents only to succumb to prejudices and trickery of the upper classes; 10 Minutes & 38 Seconds In This Strange World recalls the abusive life a dying Turkish prostitute and the effect on her five closest friends who are considered outcasts.

The Testaments details the downfall of a totalitarian state where women are kept hostage as the baby bearers of the regime’s commanders; Quichotte follows the delusions of an Indian man and his imaginary son as they cross the country in search of a drug-addicted celebrity who works in the unreliable media.

“The housewife in Ducks, Newburyport who worries about Trump, gun control, her children, climate change and much more, actually reveals how normal she, and everyone like her, is; Girl Woman Other tells the story of 12 black, gender-diverse women and their normal lives in modern day Britain.

“Big topics, big storylines big characters – they really are full frontal punches in the face of reality. These authors are capturing today in very different ways, for us, the reader, to digest and consider. None attempts morality but they do open the realms of possibility so we may form our own opinions and react accordingly.

“It was a tough call for us this year. Often we quickly form an idea of where each books sits in our favourites rank but this year we appreciated, enjoyed and valued them all, for different reasons. What each has done to represent society at this moment and how each will be remembered as a fragment of this age is valid.

“So, while in exclusion at Westhaven, in the exquisite Kahugrangi National Park, how did we rank the shortlisters?

The Testaments – while we revere Margaret Atwood and the creation of Gilead, we wondered: does this book fare as a stand alone concept, or does it rely on The Handmaid’s Tale for greatness? Hmmm. The rest we honestly couldn’t fault but had to rank them in some order and pick a top dog. And we both agreed, Ducks Newburyport performed its job as a take on the modern world as well as the others, but its unique format made it refreshing and completely absorbing and therefore a step above the rest.”

Suzy (favourites in order 1-6)
Ducks, Newburyport – Lucy Ellmann
An Orchestra of Minorities – Chigoze Obioma
Quichotte – Salman Rushdie
10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World – Elif Shafak
Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo
The Testaments – Margaret Atwood

Rachel (favourites in order 1-6)
Ducks, Newburyport – Lucy Ellmann
Quichotte – Salman Rushdie
An Orchestra of Minorities
– Chigoze Obioma
10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World – Elif Shafak
Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo
The Testaments – Margaret Atwood

Ducks, Newburyport – Lucy Ellmann

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Written in stream of consciousness style, an Ohio housewife worries about the state of the world

⚑ “the fact that Lucy Ellmann has written an absolutely remarkable novel with what will be perceived by some as an entirely unremarkable protagonist, the fact that I loved every one of those 998 pages, the fact that maybe it’s Stockholm syndrome, the fact that I am far too invested in the love life of a fictional mountain lion, the fact that America is terrifying, the fact that it’s like someone’s probed my brain and dumped its contents and sent it to a publisher, the fact that I have never read such a close-to-the-bone depiction of the mother/teen girl dynamic, the fact that it was an complete joy to read this ode to the overthinker” – Suzy

⚑”The description of this book does not to it justice. Yes an Ohio housewife worries about the world, in mostly one sentence, made up of a list of statements, separated by commas, that all begin with the phrase ‘the fact that’, BUT! what Ellmann covers off is remarkable. Yes she reflects on the state of the world, but she uses incredible detail, carefully nuanced commentary and fantastic pacing to make you, the reader, really consider and form your own opinions about the various topics.

“The unnamed housewife’s over imaginative consciousness jumps around these topics somewhat chaotically, and she forms lists, many, very long lists, (the fact that I love lists) but there is still a plot. And doesn’t this describe people? And life? Repressed thoughts, daily to-do lists but still a life that ticks over. But in the end they all converge into the person you are. And here they not only converge seamlessly into the person the housewife is but into the all-encompassing conclusion.

“Ellmann has turned the idea of traditional story telling on its head and invented a new form of the novel. She has examined how temporary life is and captured it, and human consciousness and the world in a way that is brilliant, impressive, thought-provoking and completely genius.

“I went into this book dreading it, for its size and style. But once started, it was difficult to put down. It is very readable and quite funny. Full disclosure I did skip a few hundred pages so I could read the ending before blogging about it, but now I’m going back and re-reading pages I missed, so I can link up the various plots, subplots, thoughts, foreshadowing and all Ellmann’s other cleverly disguised technicalities.” – Rachel

the fact that hogs make their own beds, though I’m not sure they do it every morning, the fact that they’re cleaner and smarter than anybody realises and don’t deserve to be made into bacon, but everyone likes bacon so much, so it’s a conundrum

—–
Published 2019
Galley Beggar Press
1022 pages

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo

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A story of modern Britain and black womanhood told through the eyes of 12 different women

⚑ “This is a beautifully paced novel which at first I thought was a collection of separate stories. However the links and interwoven threads soon became apparent and we dive deeper and deeper into the characters’ lives. Learning about a character from multiple people’s perspectives gave a richness and layering that often isn’t achieved when a story is told form a single point of view.

“We also go back and forth and in time and start to get a better understanding of the trajectory of certain characters and an empathy for their motivation and decisions. Their was a lovely rhythm to this book and I was sad when it came to and end.” – Suzy

⚑ “Girl, Woman, Other does what few other novels do by giving black, gender diverse, women a chance to speak. It sounds moralistic but it is not. These 12 stories are not about colour or sexuality, they are about people, flawed and complex people, who have struggles and successes. It’s about their loves, their triumphs, their identity and family connections.

“Each character has a chapter dedicated to them, but the stories overlap slightly to provide links, and more of a novel rather than 12 short stories. I have not read Evaristo before, but can see she is a master of characterisation. The women and their families are so well formed. The book is written in a poetic style, with ideas or simply words being dedicated their own line with limited punctuation. As such it flows nicely and is beautiful to read.” – Rachel

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Published 2019
Hamish Hamilton
464 pages

Quichotte – Salman Rushdie

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A modern re-write of Don Quixote that broaches traditional elements as well as the current state of the world. 

⚑ “Confession time: I have not read Don Quixote. While I know the premise I don’t know its intricates nor how cleverly Rushdie has played upon them in Quichotte. But I imagine quite well. Confession number 2: I have never finished a Rushdie book. So I was thrilled to discover how readable and enjoyable Quichotte was, despite the sometimes absurdist occurrences and delusional ramblings.

“The main character, an old man named Quichotte and his imaginary son, Sancho, traverse a United States that is in moral decline and encounter racists, opioid-addicted celebrities, people who turn into mastodons, crickets who speak Italian and guns that talk. They watch copious amounts of telly and trash Trump. During their travels they address all the big ticket items: racism, media, politics, addiction, greed … serious stuff but actually the book is quite funny. Plus also weird, poignant and annoying. But the world is these things. And so are people. Story telling and literary references are rife, tying together all the abstract ideas. Despite, or perhaps because of, all this craziness, I really enjoyed this book and I think the characters will stay with me for some time.” – Rachel

… to live inside fictions created by untruths or the withholding of actual truths. Maybe human life was truly fictional in this sense, that those who lived it didn’t understand it wasn’t real.

⚑ “Before this year’s Bookerthon got underway I boldly stated there was NO WAY I was going to read Quichotte due to having absolutely no success with reading other Salman Rushdie books. However, Rach gently persuaded me and I decided to give it a go.

“I’m so pleased I did as it was a damn good read! I enjoyed the book-within-a-book structure and the parallels between the two stories. I have read other reviews of Quichotte that said it was a bit too silly, but I was all for the silliness. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to give Midnight’s Children another crack.” – Suzy

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Published 2019
Jonathan Cape
393 pages

An Orchestra of Minorities – Chigoze Obioma

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A Nigerian chicken farmer sells everything he owns in order to win over his girlfriend’s wealthy family.

⚑ “An Orchestra of Minorities is about a Nigerian chicken farmer who falls in love with a girl from a wealthy family. The family do not accept Chinonso due to his lack of education so he seeks to address this in order to be able to marry his love. However, things do not eventuate as planned and the book is a whirlwind of events and agonies for him.

“Chinonso is well written and as such I cared about him deeply – I was desperate for things to work out. The book has no human narrators, instead the chi of Chinonso relays the story as he justifies his human’s actions to a panel of spirits on a divine jury of some sort. This provides a narration language which is rich and magical.

“Obioma has written only two books. Both have been shortlisted for the Booker. That gives you some idea of what a phenomenal writer he is and how worthwhile this book is.” – Rachel

They were the minorities of this world whose only recourse was to join this universal orchestra in which all there was to do was cry and wail.

⚑  “I was a bit apprehensive about this novel as I’d read it was based on Homer’s Odyssey which I know nothing about (and have to say I have no intention of finding out). I thoroughly enjoyed The Fishermen by this author though, so I tried to put aside my doubts and jumped right in.

“Narrated by a spirit guide, there were plenty of twists and turns and I don’t think I have wanted a fictitious character to succeed as much as I wanted Chinonso to. If you know anything about Homer’s Odyssey then maybe you can guess whether or not he did? I am pleased that it was a total mystery to me anyway and I was happy to be along for the ride.” – Suzy

—–
Published 2019
Little, Brown
448 pages